Music, Magic and the Muse

It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?

Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.

While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:

ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.

Remember to read for equality

Jericho Brown, The New Testament (poems)

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.

I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.

Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.

Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.

I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.

Not Your Grandmother’s Poetry Reading

How to build an audience for poetry: combine words with song, with percussion, with a delivery that goes beyond the traditional solitary poet at the mic reading original work. Stir in familiar and fresh music. Read interpretively, dare to be political, personal, confrontational and/or confessional. Last night a performance group called The Readers’ Lab did just that. The troupe performs with and under the direction of SETH, a well-known Denver performer, poet and novelist. Included are Cathy Casper, Cyndeth Allison, Dave Greenwald, James (the man of) Steele, Kathleen Cain, Pandora Wilson, and Rob Taylor.

Much of the performance was created by the performers, who, according to the program notes, “help and guide each other in exploring and experimenting with expanding their vocal delivery and enhancing spoken word by adding music, theatrics and interweaving multiple poems and voices.”

This is not a poetry reading in which one performer is the feature, not a sales pitch for a new book. It’s not about individual ego or advancement. This in itself is refreshing. There were selections from writers whom you might recognize: Donovan, Stanley Kunitz, Carl Jung, Terry Tempest Williams. (Because there was no cost of admission, no one’s copyright was violated.) The cover art on the program was by Kit Hedman of Hedman Photography, another collaboration. And it’s exactly that inclusive reach that makes this group unusual.

Now, instead of the familiar academic or coffee house venue, choose a setting like the Denver Puppet Theater where hundreds of marionettes hang on the walls, plush hand puppets are available for fondling, and huge, gorgeous Chinese dragons over arch the performance area. The entrance to the theater is through Zook’s Coffee and Ice Cream serving good food and drink. Believe it or not, there is ample on-street parking.

If you don’t have access to appearances by The Readers’ Lab, get busy and create a similar group. It’s important, although not easy, because this requires some risk-taking and regular collaboration and rehearsal. (FMI visit www.wagingart.com)

 

Sins of Social Media

Of course, I use Facebook, Twitter, this WordPress website. I have accounts on Pinterest and LinkedIn. You are using one of these sites to read this blog entry. Thank you. Now allow me to rant. It will soothe my soul and clear my sinuses.

I oppose the hard sell that I see all too often on these sites. Posting a book cover and telling me that I must read this book does not work. It’s too easy and unimaginative. The mindless repetition bores me, especially if the book in question is one of a tiresome plethora of commercial/formula fiction.

I don’t want an ad-addicted social media. I want social media that connects me to thinkers, readers, and writers with curious and generous minds. A blog post, comment, or tweet is an opportunity to connect one life to another. It’s a place to show your talent, your beliefs, your humanity.

A major book in my life has been Lewis Hydes’ The Gift, “a brilliantly orchestrated defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money ….” I appreciate gifts of news, wit, experience and ideas about things I care about: writing, climate, families, science, music and a long list of other topics. These postings are gifts to me and to others if I pass them along. Thank you if you are one of the generous people who share their lives and talents online. If you are one of the greedy who want only to sell me something I don’t need or want, goodbye.

PLEASE, READ FOR EQUALITY

Thirteen Brand New African Poetry Titles, posted by PRAIRIE SCHOONER, APRIL 14, 2017

AALBC.com, the largest, most frequently visited website dedicated to books and film by or about people of African descent.

Earth Day & Trees

It’s Earth Day and I am thinking about trees. One of my first childhood friends was a giant sugar maple from which hung my rope swing with its blue wooden seat. I did not name the tree–it needed no name. It was always there. It did not scold when I nicked the bark with the swing seat. It seemed not to mind the bare spot in the grass over its roots where I pumped my feet to fly up toward its branches. I saw that tree a few years ago—it was a tall broken stump full of ticks, and I felt that I had lost a family member. In truth, I had. In the largest sense, we are family, humans and trees. Then there was the wind-fallen oak behind the house where we lived when I was in high school. That long, horizontal trunk was what in a more adventuresome girl would have been a balance beam, but the idea of gymnastics was unknown to me. I knew how to walk that tree.

Having grown up mostly in Maine, “The Pine Tree State,” trees still feel like a necessity and I welcome the thick greenery of the place on my annual visits back. I go in high summer when the foliage is almost ominous in its thickness. Let the “leaf peeping” tourists admire the flaming fall colors. I’m content to bask in the deep shade of hardwoods and mixed evergreens.

As I write I’m wearing my tree of life earrings, Yggdrasil, a mythic green ash done in silver. The branches and the roots, both visible in the jewelry, remind me that trees feed the imagination. Words are the fruit of the forest, which is our library. On my current reading list are The Tree by John Fowles and three others recommended by a favorite librarian: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Song of Trees by David George Haskell.

Here then is my modest Earth Day celebration of the tree:

WHERE AM I GOING?

     I’m going off to find

            a tree I can lean on,

                        watch the grass grow.

In another life

             I might be a tree

                                   oak or maple, pine or ash.

           Ah, sapling, I will be

                           your shade and your soil

                   until you are tall

                    and well rooted.

 

Poems for Poetry Month

I tell other people to write, write, write, even if it’s practice rather than product. And here’s what happens when I tell myself that. Probably these are more dabbles than haiku, but they are of that family. I’m flummoxed with the spacing, so pretend they are single spaced.

Totally modern

woman with a phone, no calls

Smartest phone of all

 

It’s hair dye or else

new brand of agent orange

That hair could kill us

 

Cold bottled water

thirst quenching throw away

Plastic assassin

 

Dying of boredom

killing time again today

Guilty as charged

 

Reader gasping hard

near me in the coffee shop

takes my breath away

Play Nice with Reviews?

We now know more than we ever wanted to know about speaking truth to power. But what about speaking truth to other writers?

Part of my work is to critique manuscripts, and assessing those darlings can give me hives, gastric reflux and headache. What if I tell the truth?: “This story lacks conflict. What I see here is not a poem, but a confession and I am not a priest to grant absolution, these characters are cardboard, the theme of the essay is unidentifiable.” Fortunately, that rarely happens. But the child in me says, “Please, don’t hate me. Like me, like me, like me.”

Do critics such as Harold Bloom, Dana Gioia, and Helen Vendler care if other people like them? I suppose they feel secure in their judgment and know that I’m out here–anonymous, but engaged–relying on them to tell me the truth about a book, a poem, another writer! Even when the truth makes me squirm. What if they were to say bad things about my work? (Would that they know my work.)

Ah, there’s the knot in my shoelace. Every negative review or critique scrapes skin off the writer. The idea that any publicity is good: I question this idea. I don’t much care for Billy Collins’ latest book, The Rain in Portugal, and I doubt he would see any criticism I set loose in the world. But you never know. Recently I tweeted a compliment about W.S. Merwin’s Migration. And, whoa! The next day there was a “like” from The Merwin Conservancy. Liking what I like and saying so publicly is, I’ve decided, more helpful than whining and snarling about what I don’t care for. Or maybe I’m a thin-skinned coward operating on the theory that if I don’t say anything negative about you, you won’t send me to my room for a decade.